Firearms at a gun shop in Pompano Beach, Fla. The Senate is expected Wednesday… (Getty Images, Joe Raedle )
WASHINGTON — After four months of debate and maneuvering, the Senate headed for a showdown over gun control — a series of back-to-back votes on rival plans Wednesday afternoon that could end in the collapse of the entire effort.
The impending climax, after weeks of inconclusive negotiations, came as gun control supporters tried, without apparent success, to get enough senators to commit themselves to a compromise reached last week by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). Their proposal, which would expand the background check requirement for gun buyers, appears to have support of a majority of the Senate, but so far has fallen short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster.
Under the procedure announced late Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the background check measure would be put to a vote, followed by eight other proposals, all cast as amendments to the gun control package that the Senate has been considering. The amendments to be voted on include several backed by the National Rifle Assn. to expand the rights of gun owners, as well as the assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Reid decided to put the amendments to a vote because "it's clear that there's not much point in negotiating any further," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. "We'll see where the votes are."
Although the background check measure has fallen short in tallies by both sides, the multiple amendments could provide an opportunity for changing crucial votes, the aide said. Democratic senators from conservative states or Republicans who have been on the fence about gun control could vote for some of the NRA-backed amendments in hopes of obtaining political cover for a vote in favor of background checks, the aide said. They would do so knowing that none of those measures were likely to hit the 60-vote threshold.
In addition, Democratic vote counters think the high-stakes showdown could generate additional public pressure in favor of the gun measures.
But despite those possibilities, the move clearly represented a high-risk strategy on Reid's part. Earlier in the day, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led the gun control effort in the Senate, said that "a little more time" would be helpful.
So far, only two other Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois — have joined Toomey in supporting the background check measure. A few others, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they remain undecided. Several Democrats who face reelection in conservative states, including Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana, also have not taken sides.
Most gun rights groups, including the NRA, oppose the measure, although two smaller pro-gun organizations recently endorsed the plan. Currently, a person who buys a gun from a licensed dealer must go through a background check, but sales outside of the dealer network — at gun shows, for example, or through the Internet — are exempt. The proposal would end those exemptions, although it would allow some private unadvertised sales without checks.
Sellers would be required to use a licensed dealer to conduct the background check, and the dealership would keep a record of the sale, as is currently done. That would allow law enforcement agencies to trace ownership of guns used in crimes. Gun rights groups object that those records could eventually be used to create a national gun registry, which is currently banned by law.
Supporters of the proposal probably would need the backing of all the remaining undecided senators to reach 60 votes. They would also need the vote of New Jersey's Frank R. Lautenberg, the 89-year-old Democrat who has been absent from the Senate recently because of illness.
In an effort to hold their ranks together, Senate Democrats gathered Tuesday for a lunchtime meeting that included what Reid called a "moving, tearful presentation" by Manchin.
Adding to the emotion was a brief appearance by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was severely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson two years ago. Giffords' husband, retired naval Capt. Mark Kelly, spoke at the lunch, as did senators from Virginia and Connecticut, states that have been the scenes of mass shootings in recent years.
"There were just so many moments there of just genuine inspiration — from Gabby Giffords and her husband coming in, to statements that were made by Joe Manchin, by [Sens.] Tim Kaine, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy. I turned to my colleague Bill Nelson [of Florida] and said, 'Now you know why you ran to be in the Senate — to be here at this moment in history.' That was an inspiring lunch," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.